Good show

For a trade show to succeed it obviously needs to draw enough of the right type of people to make exhibitors’ investment worthwhile. For many visitors, however, there are an increasing number of reasons not to attend.

The business community is constantly complaining about the pressures of time and trade shows are the most dispensible when it comes to looking for more time in the day. Add to this the growing number of shows in each sector, and competition from the Internet and tele-conferencing, which enable people to access products and suppliers without leaving the office. It all leaves the exhibition organiser having to work harder than ever just to maintain visitor numbers.

It is trade shows that are the most vulnerable. There is never a problem attracting visitors to the Homes & Gardens Show at Earl’s Court, and tickets for the Chelsea Flower Show are almost as hard to come by as tickets for Twickenham.

So, what can be done to add appeal, and value, to trade shows and entice enough of the right people without breaking the budget? And does the extra effort actually work?

The marketing industry itself is a sector in which two of the key trade shows have taken completely different approaches. Incentive International, the UK’s biggest sales promotion/premium product exhibition, has several new features this year. Its main added attraction in previous years, the Inventive Incentive stand which contained original and interesting products, has given way to two sections with more specific angles. The Stateside Experience showcases new products which are having an impact in the US premium market, and the show will also have its own Millennium Dome.

“The Millennium represents a huge opportunity for the marketing community,” says Incentive International event director, Adrian Broadbent. “We felt it appropriate to provide something that would give marketers both information and ideas about its potential. Our own Millennium Dome will provide details about what is happening in the real thing, information about events taking place worldwide and an exhibition of products that we feel could be ideal for promotions next year.”

The show will also have an information village which will include The Express Marketing Clinic where visitors can discuss general marketing problems with experts and The Planning Booth which gives advice on how to plan promotions.

Broadbent claims these features are vital to the continuing success of the exhibition: “The target audience for a show like Incentive International includes very senior marketing personnel and agency bosses as well as the middle brand and account management. These are busy people, so the new features that we’ve added to this year’s show are intended to present a range of valuable information to appeal to all levels.”

The main rival in the UK to Incentive International is Incentive World, whose show director, Ian Allchild, has spurned the idea of adding extras to the exhibition: “Visitors and exhibitors come to a show to buy and sell.

Buyers’ time at a show is precious. For organisers to provide irrelevant alternative distractions is reducing the time they have to visit stands. What is important is to maximise the buyers’ time with efficient pre-registration systems and access.

“However, the quality of the companies represented should be sufficient to attract the best without artificial initiatives. We are not in the entertainment industry – we run a trade show for people to do business.”

Penny Hanson, exhibition director of the live event industry’s Meetings & Incentive Travel Show, agrees that irrelevant features do not work,but believes added value does have an important role. “I do think organisers have to create an environment that’s comfortable, easy to work and informative through relevant features. You can’t take the same approach as some consumer shows and just add entertainment. It must relate to the industry.”

Hanson adds: “Trade shows vary and some need dynamic features more than others. With an agricultural exhibition for example, you have lots of pieces of machinery so people can actually see the products, often in action. The Meetings & Incentive Travel (M&IT) Show, on the other hand, features static products such as hotels, destinations and services – you can’t physically bring them to the show so it’s important to do something else to create an atmosphere while also being informative.”

This year’s M&IT Show, for example, will include the Theatre of Themes which is designed to give organisers new ideas for events, parties, conferences and gala dinners.

“This area will recreate a variety of different techniques people can use to enhance their events using live acts and demonstrations,” says Hanson. “It will feature industry experts in a lively, informative way so visitors will be able to get ideas and impartial help.”

So assuming the features have a relevance and are of interest to visitors, is there is a danger that they will draw attention away from the exhibitors, who could lose business because less time is being spent on visiting stands?

Kevin Marriott, event director of the computer graphics trade show Digital Media World, claims that done properly the reverse is true. “We have introduced a series of features such as seminars and demonstration equipment which aim to give visitors impartial information. There is also an area demonstrating the bolt-on technology that wouldn’t be featured in the show if the suppliers had to pay full rates.

“Visitors are hungry for knowledge on how to do things better, so our focus is on explaining to them what’s happening in the industry and what may be useful to them. We do this irrespective of who is exhibiting because, I believe, the exhibitors come in on the back of how a show can help the visitor. The exhibitors have welcomed the approach because it means that people then come to them for the right reasons. It is obviously working because in our first year the average time spent at the show was under three hours, now it’s five.”

One thing that everyone does agree with is the value of speeding up the registration process and providing visitors with useful information about the show.

At the M&IT Show, for example, visitors are greeted by a concierge service where coats and baggage can be taken without the need to find cloakrooms. VIP registration, hospitality and valet parking also helps to make key buyers feel welcome and use their time efficiently. But it is in helping visitors plan their attendance that the biggest change is taking place. Traditionally visitors have had to rely on a weighty catalogue which meant finding a place to sit down, pore over the details and then remember where places of interest were located.

Computerised systems in which visitors can enter criteria to determine which stands they need to visit are now becoming more common. At Incentive International an operator on the Product Locator stand will take details of what visitors are looking for and then produce a floor plan with relevant stands highlighted. The M&IT Show has a similar system and Digital Media World has a series of large screens demonstrating what is happening at various stands.

But it is now possible to go one stage further and at the same time turn the threat of the Internet, mentioned earlier, into an asset. Many large trade shows already have a Website providing information about an exhibition, but have they really grasped its full potential?

Barry Hardy, managing director of Virtual Environments International, which markets Virtual Exhibition, thinks not. “We have produced an Internet package which allows people to use a search engine to go over the exhibition according to what interests them. They can then use the system to send an e-mail to exhibitors to book appointments at the show or request further information.

“At the National Online Meeting in the US we also added our Virtual Conference package which enabled Internet users to check details of the seminar programme and download any presentations they had missed.

“Another advantage of the product is that it effectively prolongs the life of an event because the site runs for several months before and after the show. So people can use e-mail to follow up enquiries or just stay in touch with people they have met at the show,” says Hardy.

Like so many features at trade shows, use of the Internet can be cost effective and useful, or an expensive waste of time depending on how well it is executed. A Website that is no more than a brochure on screen will not impress visitors, just as a seminar that is no more than a publicity opportunity for the biggest exhibitor will generate cynicism. People go to trade shows to learn and do business, adding value can work only if it helps meet these two objectives. If it entertains as well then so much the better.

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